5-ish Pantagruels, $17,000 - $185,000

UPDATE, 11/16/2016: I found another design binding on this Pantagruel, by Henri Creuzevalt held by the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.  See my blog post about French bindings from the LOH for pictures!

I was very moved a few years ago when, at New York's book fair, I leafed through a book that was far beyond my price range. An unbound copy (in a wrapper, as issued) of Skira's 1943 edition of the 16th century Pantagruel by Rabelais, profusely illustrated with André Derain's woodcuts.

Of course I was aware of the many limited edition books with artwork by 20th century heavy hitters like Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, and Miro -- many also published by Skira -- but I didn't know about Derain's works. So, when I found Pantagruel, I was just blown away with the whole production. The illustrations were brimming with confidence and color. For me they even had some slyness -- glancing shimmers of legend here and there! -- and maybe that's due in part to the fact that Derain was said to have been inspired by medieval playing cards. What a great fit for a great old book about eat drink and be merry! 

Ursus Books, based in New York, may have been the dealer whose copy I found. They list a copy for sale on their website (unbound, in a wrapper, as issued, with extra suite of illustrations) with a list price of $35,000. They write, "Derain spent two years working on the 179 woodcuts for this book. Instead of using separate blocks for individual colours, each woodcut was printed from a single block with all colours applied à la poupée. As is also true with Matisse's Jazz, that process resulted in each pull of each woodcut being akin to a monotype, offering a unique impression of the image. The original Pantagruel by Rabelais was published around 1532. It was so full of vulgarities, scatological humor, and irreverent behavior, that it was immediately condemned by the church and deemed obscene by the Sorbonne, guaranteeing the book's enduring popularity!" See more online from Artstor and Princeton Library blog.

The Metropolitan Museum has a copy, as do MoMA, MFA Boston, Harvard, Princeton, NYPL, The Morgan Library (whose copy is bound by the elder Legrain (P.A. )!), the Menil Collection (plus three others in Texas), the Library of Congress, etc. I've seen dealers and institutions list the print run variously as 275, 285, and 300, but the point is they are rare. 

So all this is a preface to my actual point, which is to discuss some high end bindings -- or choices not to bind -- on copies of Derain's Pantagruel. You'll see binding choices that follow a few schools of thought: 

  1. Like the Ursus Books copy linked above, to ceate no binding at all. Leave the text just as issued, in wrappers or in a box
  2. A binding design that is informed and inspired by a text or an aspect of the text. We have 3 of those below that we can look at from some well-known binders that are each different and successful. (But we do not have that copy by Pierre Legrain from the Morgan - dang!)
  3. A "period" binding that tries to copy a binding style of the past, which we see from a copy still available from Phillip Pirages Fine Books.

The "doing nothing" path is perfectly fine and the most faithful from historical or conservative conservation perspectives. I'd suggest to make sure it's in a box, though, to protect the leaves and keep everything together. The box can be as elaborately or lavishly decorated as you wish, and in fact many bookbinders make livings from decorating boxes. 

But for the next type, "inspirational" bindings, we can start with a nice contemporary one by Luigi Castiglioni, who lives and works in Italy. Beautiful smooth background beige (likely box calf) with bold colored onlays set in an interesting and smart pattern. Like the next couple ones, the binding design is obviously inspired by Derain's woodcuts. The large "P" and "L" on this spine are elegantly designed to enclose the pandemonium of the rest of the letters, fitting for the vulgar merry scatalogical stuff inside. Price unknown.

Castiglioni - from http://www.luigicastiglioni.it/luigi-gallery1.html

Next one is by the very talented Pierre-Lucien Martin from 1961 in a similar bold and colorful style, but with subtle yet ample gold tooling. Quite successful as well, in my opinion. The volume was listed in a Sotheby's sale in 2014 (Paris, Livres et Manuscrits, December 18), with the estimate between $37,000 and $49000. Did it sell? I'm not sure - does anyone know?

Martin (1961). Auctioned at Sotheby's, 2014. Unsold?

And third, a binding by Georges Leroux likely commissioned in 1995 by the art curator Jan van der Marck, which was sold at auction in 2015 for about $17,000. Simpler than the other two, and far less colorful but interesting design still. Not sure about the quality of the leather from the looks of it; or the rounding of the spine, and the end caps, but it's really tough to judge that stuff without seeing it in person. 

Leroux (1995)

Let's move from an inspirational design to a period design, where we have the following copy bound by Léon Gruel for sale at $33,000. This binding looks technically excellent and clean but for me is quite boring. Much too antiquated for such a boisterous text.

Gruel [n.d.]

Now, what's a fitting binding for a text like Pantagruel? I find the works of Castiglioni, Martin, and Leroux very beautiful. But there's lots of potentially successful styles, even beyond what we discussed here (for example, designs that are totally abstract, totally pictorial, or ultra representational). So is a period binding suitable here? I dunno, but I lean towards thinking that it was not the best choice for a vibrant artistic text like Pantagruel

Now don't take that to mean that inspirational designs are always better. When they are not done well, they look awful. In particular, they look caricatured, overly representational, and crafty (in the pejorative, amateurish sense). So be careful out there!

N.B. Want to see a Pantagruel selling for $185,000? It's not Derain's, so it's not on-topic, but shoot - take a look. Battledore Ltd lists for an immensely illustrated book from the 16th century loosely inspired by Rebelais' text.